University of Maryland Extension

Create a “Herp” Friendly Landscape

Author: 
Ray Bosmans, Professor Emeritus & President of the Mid-Atlantic Turtle and Tortoise Society

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Gardens that Attract Turtles, Snakes, Lizards, Salamanders, Frog and Toads

What is a Herp you may ask? Herp is short for Herptile which is a name that collectively includes reptiles and amphibians. These amazing animals are a modern day throw back to the age of dinosaurs. Reptiles and amphibians are remarkably successful to have survived essentially unchanged since the dawn of time. They are found in almost every part of the world and most have adapted to many challenges, the biggest of which are the impacts (mostly harmful) of humans. These animals definitely deserve our respect.


The mid-Atlantic region has a rich diversity of turtles, snakes, lizards, salamanders, frogs and toads. Herptiles play a very significant role in nature. They eat pests such as rodents (primarily the snakes); others feed on harmful insects, slugs and other destructive plant pests; and many are also food for other animals. For example, the Bald Eagle that is making a comeback in Maryland loves to eat water snakes. Aside from their role in the balance of nature, they are an “indicator species” of environmental quality. Reptiles and amphibians are very sensitive to pollutants in the landscape. Their presence in your backyard is a good indicator of a healthy environment.

Herps in our region are increasingly threatened by wide spread habitat destruction, pollution, and vehicles road kills.

What can you do in your landscape to attract and support a population of reptiles and amphibians?

Here is a quick check list to help you:

  • Limit the use of traditional insecticides, use them only when absolutely needed and only on the target plants. Whenever possible use bio-rational insecticides such as insecticidal soap, horticultural oil and biologicals. Plant native plants that are more insect and disease hardy than many imported plants.
  • Do not over- use lawn weed killers. Keep your lawn mowed at the proper height of 2-3 inches for cool season grasses and weeds will be reduced. Hand dig or spot treat weedy patches with a labeled weed killer. Do not spray the entire lawn if weeds are only patchy.
  • Avoid mowing your lawn in the late evening or at night. Almost all species of reptiles and amphibians are actively moving through the lawn at night. Turtles are usually not very active at night except during the egg-laying season of early summer. Whether you mow with a push or riding mower always be on the look out for turtles, snakes and toads. Box turtles are the number one victims of lawn mower injuries.
  • Install an aquatic garden; it does not need to be large. They are not too difficult to make, (except for the digging). Planted with beautiful water lilies an aquatic garden will bring you great enjoyment. It also will provide a refuge for frogs and toads to lay their eggs, a place for a box turtle to drink and wade. Be sure there are several easy places for a turtles to climb out, or else they will drown. To learn how to create your own back yard pond refer to HGIC publications #17 and 17A.
  • Provide cover for reptiles and amphibians to hide. Convert some of your lawn into beautiful perennial flower beds, ground covers or shrubs. An open lawn does not provide the needed protection for these small animals to feel safe and secure. They are rather low on the food chain and need to hide a lot!
  • Leave a place in your yard a little “wild”. The entire landscape does not need to be so manicured, an area that has a patch of wild growth, piles of leaves or branches provide places to hide and to hibernate over the winter.
  • When driving be on the look out for turtles crossing the road. So many are killed by drivers who either do not see them or simply don’t care. (some drivers even aim for them). It seems that a glass beer bottle has a better chance of surviving than a poor turtle simply trying to get across. If safe, pull over and move the turtle across the road in the direction it was headed. Although a box turtle is very cute, resist taking it home as a pet.
  • Finally, take a little time to learn more about these fascinating creatures. Snakes are the least understood or appreciated reptile. Too many have fallen victim to the shovel. Fortunately today, less people kill them than years ago partly due to the many educational programs on TV and what children are now taught about reptiles in school.

Keep in mind that all native reptiles and amphibians are protected in Maryland and neighboring states. It is illegal to willfully kill a snake or any other reptile. If you find an injured turtle contact a licensed wildlife rehabber by visiting the website of the Mid-Atlantic Turtle and Tortoise Society

To learn more about enhancing your backyard wildlife habitat see our website’s Attracting Wildlife page.
Hopefully, by making a few improvements you can create a landscape that sustains good environmental quality for Herps.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2009 edition of Home and Garden News.

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